Social-Emotional Learning is Life-Saving Curriculum

With the rise in suicide rates for students and young adults, Social-Emotional Learning has never been more important. Ryan Last, 17. An unnamed 14-year-old at Niagara Falls. Kailia Posey, 16. Arlana Miller, 19. These are the names of just a few of the teens that died by suicide in the last month.

Nine out of every 100 high school students have made a suicide attempt in the past twelve months. As a member of a marginalized identity group, those numbers increase drastically. Black youth who have faced adverse childhood experiences, witnessed community trauma, been subjected to racial discrimination, or experience mental health diagnoses of ADHD or depression are at a higher risk of contemplating or attempting suicide (Scientific American). Over a quarter of Indigenous students in the United States attempted suicide last year (AFSP). Stop and consider those numbers for a minute.

2020 was one of the deadliest years on record for suicides by students aged 15-24. COVID-19 is not the only pandemic that we are currently facing. Suicide is a nationwide mental health crisis, and it is severely affecting our children and young adults. Suicide is preventable. Overcoming stigma is possible. To equip students with the language and skills they need to navigate challenges of bullying, childhood trauma, articulating emotion, and coping with change and loss, many school districts across the country are focusing their efforts on bringing Social-Emotional Learning skills and early intervention opportunities to their classrooms. This cannot be considered optional any longer.

Being aware of mental health and self-care is important at all ages. Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL, has become a more mainstream topic within our educational systems.  One such academic framework (CASEL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) focuses on five core social and emotional competencies. This framework considers self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, with classroom instruction and climate being at the center of the learning environment. These are also skills that are taught to move further, encouraging school, caregiver/family, and community environment participation.

The above are technical aspects of SEL. What is the tangible impact of SEL in schools? Many studies have been conducted to see how students respond in learning environments, and it has been proven that students who feel emotionally and physically safe, engaged in learning, and included in their classrooms by friends and instructors excel over those who do not have these supports. Students who are taught these five social and emotional competencies using age-appropriate techniques develop a stronger sense of empathy and understanding, can articulate their needs and manage those needs and make healthier decisions. Academic performance also improves dramatically, with average performance increasing by 11 percentile points compared to students not receiving SEL programs.

There are also long-term impacts for students who engage in SEL programs. By learning skills like self-regulation, articulating emotions, and setting boundaries at a young age, students develop self-esteem and confidence in a way that carries them into adulthood. Early intervention and continuous SEL programs not only teach students where to turn if they are in crisis; they equip students with the skills needed to recognize and comprehend topics such as gratitude, humility, and empathy. Students develop the ability to not only accept but celebrate each other in the classroom.

There are many misconceptions about SEL. One frequent criticism is that SEL is a “soft science,” because it focuses on emotional and relational topics instead of “hard sciences” such as biology and algebra. Students engaged in SEL do not lose any of the knowledge or experience within the “hard sciences,” and SEL is not a replacement for other subjects. It is something that can be incorporated into any classroom or topic. Students engaged in SEL are more likely to be in the classroom consistently, improving attendance and dropping rates of suspension and expulsion in schools that have fully integrated SEL into their day-to-day education.

We at US² firmly believe in the impact of Social-Emotional Learning programs. We have witnessed the difference these programs make for students. SEL programs reflect many of our Core Principles. Consider our Core Principle #4, which states, “Seek to impact someone’s heart, which will ultimately change their mind.” What action steps can you take to demonstrate to children and young adults that they matter? How can we make sure they feel valued and supported?

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, do not hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK. Even if you don’t know someone who needs this now, saving this number could save a life.